VERSAILLES — In November, Central Kentucky horse farms can seem like very expensive versions of high-school matchmaking.
Would-be Thoroughbred breeders shuttle between the boys (stallion shows at horse farms) and the girls (broodmare sales) trying to decide which mares to buy and whom to breed to next.
When this year's "homecoming queen," Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, sold for $10 million at Fasig-Tipton, one of the first questions to her new owners was "who will you send her to?" — meaning: Which high-priced stud will do the honors of attempting to create the next generation of greatness?
It's a game of "would you like me if I liked you?" played with horses and fortunes.
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So who is more important, the stallion or the mare?
"Can't have one without the other," said Bill Farish, who handles day-to-day operations at one of the most successful breeding operations in the world, Lane's End Farm in Versailles. "Can't say one is more important than the other. ... I don't think the farm would have been as successful without the stallions."
But they wouldn't have had those stallions without some pretty special mares.
Lane's End is known for having one of the strongest stallion rosters in the business. It's where A.P. Indy and Kingmambo stood before they retired, where Smart Strike and Lemon Drop Kid stand now.
The farm owes it all to one mare named Lassie Dear, Farish said.
Her grandsons included Preakness winner Summer Squall (father of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Charismatic), Breeders' Cup Classic and Belmont winner A.P. Indy, and Belmont winner Lemon Drop Kid.
"It always seems to come back to the mare," Farish said. "You have to think that we wouldn't have an A.P. Indy ... if it weren't for Weekend Surprise and Lassie Dear. That whole family is what produced that great stallion. You have to say it goes back to the mare."
Stallions need mares
Stallions are "the breadwinners," Farish said. "Stallions tend to get most of the attention — but without the mares and without the quality mares, stallions can't make it at stud. The mares are really the base for everything. Our best luck with stallions has been out of good broodmare families. ... Better stallions come from those good female families."
That seems to argue for dominant genes passed from females, but no one has really settled that question.
"The La Troienne line has stayed very, very influential all through the years," Farish said. "It's probably one of the most dominant influences on the breed of any stallion or mare. It's amazing when a mare can have such an influence that a mare produces stallions and broodmares all through her lineage. It can come back to that mare that only can have one foal a year. She can be so influential on the whole breed."
Born in France after World War I, the delicate La Troienne was not a success on the track. Her original breeder sent her to the stallion Gainsborough in England, then put her on the market in foal. She was purchased and brought to America in 1931 by Col. Edward R. Bradley of Idle Hour Stock Farm in Lexington. The first foal, a filly, was euthanized when she was born with weak back legs, according to historical accounts.
But through her other foals, she has gone down in horse history as one of the most important mares of all time, responsible for hundreds of stakes winners.
Her influence is still felt: In 1938, La Troienne was injured when she bolted during a lightning storm and was almost put down. But the farm nursed her through a shoulder injury to deliver the filly she was carrying.
Named Businesslike, by War Admiral, that filly in turn gave birth to Busanda in 1947. Busanda gave birth in 1963 to Buckpasser, who sired Lassie Dear in 1974.
Lineage of biblical proportions
Lassie Dear was one of the first mares Lane's End founder Will S. Farish and his late business partner, Bill Kilroy, ever bought.
"People buy a lot of mares, and they don't always work out, but Lassie Dear was an exception to that," Bill Farish said. "She wasn't a great racehorse, but she produced Weekend Surprise."
Lassie Dear was bred to Triple Crown winner Secretariat, and in 1980 she had Weekend Surprise. Farish and Kilroy bred Weekend Surprise to Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew to give her foal more bone, and she produced the great A.P. Indy.
He was bred to another Farish-Kilroy mare, Prospectors Delite, who produced a phenomenal seven stakes winners, including Mineshaft, who today stands at stud for $30,000 in the Lane's End barn, right across from his father, A.P. Indy, who is now retired.
Mineshaft was one of four horses that Will Farish and his wife, Sarah, took with them when they moved to England in 2001 while he served as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain.
But the horse didn't care for the soft going, running on the grass and was sent back to the United States. After a successful year in America, Mineshaft was named 2003 Horse of the Year and retired to stud at Lane's End, where he sired Hightail, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint this month at Santa Anita Park in California.
That's a strong bloodline.
Abuzz with buyers
The Monday after the Breeders' Cup championships, back at Lane's End Farm in Versailles things were so busy that Farish could barely find a private place to talk.
The biggest breeding-stock sales of the year were beginning that night at Fasig-Tipton, and on Tuesday at Keeneland. Buyers from around the world poured into Central Kentucky for the annual opportunity to find their special mares.
Somewhere on Lane's End Farm waited famous owners, including Phyllis Wyeth, there to size up how her Belmont winner Union Rags is settling into his new home in the stallion barn. At Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland, potential buyers were lining up to look at cream-of-the-crop mares who would bring millions in the sales rings over the next two weeks.
A group of Japanese buyers arrived at the stallion barn in a tour bus and proceeded to take pictures with the famous sires. Around every corner was another knot of people sizing up another glossy horse.
The velvety Mineshaft was clearly a favorite with both Farish and the Japanese, who might be working on their own Thoroughbred dynasty.
But how do you know which unassuming filly will become the foundation mare that can produce winners and sires?
"You don't know," he said. "You never really know what's going to happen, except you've got a beautiful horse with a great pedigree."
An inexact science
Finally, there was a quiet spot to talk mares: in the Lane's End cemetery.
Havre de Grace's sire, Saint Liam, rests on the right with other famous Lane's End stallions. On the left is Lassie Dear, her daughters on either side, with Prospectors Delite and her mother and grandmother.
"There are all the girls," Farish said, gesturing toward a crescent of gray headstones, the cornerstones of Lane's End Farm. "It's amazing what they produced. ... They all had probably five stakes winners apiece, which was really an important part of the beginning of the farm."
The best stallions will be lucky if 10 percent of any given year's runners are stakes winners.
While top stallions will have 100 or more babies to make their mark each year, a mare will have only one — and perhaps a dozen in her life who ever race. To have multiple stakes winners is a remarkable achievement for any mare.
Even after all these years and all of his success, Farish still expresses a bit of bewilderment about how it happened.
Take Mineshaft. "How do we duplicate that?" he asked. "It's very inexact."
They try every year, but Hightail proved what a puzzle that is. Mineshaft's forte, Farish said, was distances over a mile; Hightail is a sprinter.
"Where it came from, I don't know," Farish said. "It works in funny ways."